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What Are Your Legal Rights As A Pet Owner?

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It's estimated that 70-80 million dogs and 74-96 million cats are owned in the United States.

Animals primarily are regarded as property and have little or no legal rights of their own. Because of this status, generally there is a presumption—provided no law is violated—in favor of the owner's control and use over the best interests of the animal. If, for example, someone decides that the family dog or cat becomes "too much trouble," the animal companion can be legally relinquished to a veterinarian and euthanized.

Anti-cruelty laws require that animals be provided with basic necessities and be treated humanely unless it is "necessary" or "justifiable" to deny them food, water or shelter. As long as individuals comply with these minimal standards, they may go unpunished for actions that are not necessarily in the best interest of the animal and that may even cause pain and suffering, such as relinquishing a cat to a pound that sells animals for research or subjecting a dog to cosmetic tail docking and ear cropping. (ASPCA)

Understand Your State's Dog Bite Laws

As a dog owner, it's important that you have an understanding of when the law may make you responsible for injuries and other damages caused by your dog, and how you may be able to protect yourself financially in case your dog bites someone. Read on to learn more.

Just about every state has a clearly-delineated legal rule for pet owner liability arising from dog bites, whether it comes directly from a law passed by legislators, or from decisions handed down by the state's appellate courts over the years.
These rules can vary significantly from state to state, so talk to an experienced personal injury attorney for the details on the law in place where you live. In general, though, there are three basics types of legal principles that could determine whether or not you are liable for injuries and other damages caused by your dog:

Strict Liability and One Bite Laws

Strict Liability: Many states — including California, Michigan, and New Jersey — follow strict liability rules when it comes to dog bites. Basically, a strict liability law means that you, as the dog's owner, are liable for just about every injury your dog causes. It doesn't matter if you knew your dog was dangerous or had bitten someone in the past. Nor does it matter that you did everything you could to restrain your dog or to protect the public from the dog, such as put up fencing and warning signs.
There are a few exceptions, though. Even in a strict liability state, you're usually not liable if your dog bites a trespasser (someone who is on your property without your permission), or someone who provokes the dog, by hitting it or otherwise acting aggressively toward it.

"One Bite" Laws: In Georgia, New York, Texas, and more than a dozen other states, you might not be liable for injuries caused by your dog's first bite, if you had no reason to know your dog was inclined to act aggressively. That essentially means your dog gets one "free" bite or other aggressive act against someone before you're considered on notice, and you'll be liable for injuries caused by your dog after that first incident.

For example, let's say your dog, for the first time ever, bites someone who happens to be walking past your driveway. Then, a few days later, your dog bites another person in the same area. In a "one bite" state, you may not be automatically liable for the first victim's injuries (unless you were negligent in connection with the incident). However, you'll likely be liable for the second victim's injuries, since that incident happened in the wake of the first.

Again, there are some exceptions here. The "one bite" rule doesn't protect you if, before the first bite, you actually knew, or had a reason to believe, that your dog had a dangerous propensity — meaning you knew, or should have known, that your dog had a habit of acting aggressively and could foreseeably hurt someone. And if the court decides that you violated some other law (like a leash law) or you were negligent in connection with the dog bite (you left a gate open, for example), then any protection you might have had under the "one bite" rule will probably go out the proverbial window. More in-depth discussion of negligence follows in the next section.

Pet Custody?

Pet custody refers to the issues that arise when more than one person claims ownership of a dog, cat, or other small animals. These issues occasionally lead to a conflict over ownership and custody rights.

Does This Mean Pet Custody like Child Custody?

Pet custody is not like child custody. First, pets are not people. While nearly every pet owner all may treat their pets like furry children, under the law they are nearly universally recognized as personal property.

Pet custody issues typically arise when a relationship ends, couples divorce or separate and neither is willing to give up ownership of the pet they shared. Pet custody issues can also arise in disasters and other extraordinary circumstances. For example, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina many of the affected cities' furry residents were rescued and relocated to shelters across the country from which they were adopted by well-meaning and generous families. However, once the affected families started to recover from the disaster, they wanted their pets back.

What If I Recently Ended a Relationship and Want Custody of a Shared Pet?

Unless you can agree upon an amicable sharing agreement with your ex (albeit a spouse, wife, husband, girlfriend, boyfriend, partner), you will probably have to go to court to arrange a type of sharing schedule. Since pets are legally classified as property, they will have to be divided between you as such. Since the pet cannot be physically split, a court may order the prevailing party to "pay-off" the other party.

However, there is a precedent for treating animals as a special form of property. Much like a rare painting or piece of jewelry, there is sentimental value attached to the pet that cannot be replaced with money or another item. Some judges even allowed testimony from animal experts on which situation would be best for the animal. These experts evaluate the way the pet interacts with each of the parties to see which it has bonded most with or even if it could handle a shared custody situation. Such shared custody hearings are increasing in popularity.

However, if you were never married to your ex, this situation could become even more complicated. Since the pet is property, usually the person whose name is on the ownership papers will have the better case. However, the other partner could provide evidence that they were the ones paying for the upkeep of the animal (i.e. receipts for food, supplies, veterinary visits, etc.) or were the primary caregiver.

Do I Need a Lawyer?

If you are involved in any type of custody dispute with your significant other, your children, your pets, or all three, a
family lawyer who has experience in custody disputes can help you decide the best course of action. Speaking with a lawyer will be the best way to ensure you can maintain contact with your furry friend. Read more

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